BOSTON, MASS. — “I not only have great respect for Andy Williams’ taste, I like his music, too,” quipped auctioneer Stephen Fletcher from the podium prior to getting Skinner’s American furniture and decorative arts auction underway on March 3. Starting off the auction in blockbuster style, the first 22 lots comprised the Andy William folk art collection, separately cataloged and in a league of its own. The remarkable collection held up to Fletcher’s assessment, with the 20 lots that sold grossing an impressive $2,471,500.
Preview for the auction began on the Thursday prior to the sale, and large crowds of dealers, collectors and Andy Williams fans made their way through the gallery to view his impressive collection, as well as a host of other items from the general Americana auction. As might well be expected, Andy Williams music gently wooed the crowd throughout the inspection period.
“Known the world over for his smooth voice and timeless charm, Andy Williams entertained generations with his music, television and theatre…,” stated the foreword in Skinner’s catalog. “With a successful performing and recording career under his belt, Williams began building a focused collection of visual arts… he put together a distinctly beautiful distillation of American folk art. Gathering prime examples of weathervanes, shop carvings and paintings, Andy highlighted some of the most beautiful and striking characteristics of American and popular untrained art. He was known in the art world for his keen eye and impeccable taste, and his folk art collection proves both.”
As starting time for the auction drew near and with the gallery filling up, Skinner staff marched into the storage room and pulled out another large group of chairs. forming two long aisles across the back of the gallery. With those chairs filling quickly and people still standing, some even sitting on the floor, staff brought out another load of chairs to accommodate the large crowd.
Despite the large number of people in attendance, as the Williams collection crossed the auction block not a single hand went up in the air from the gallery for the first seven lots. The first item to be offered was a rare pair of widgeon working decoys made by the Ward Brothers and cataloged as “early Twentieth Century.” Listing a provenance of William Mackey, the rare turned head decoys retained their original paint.
Fletcher started the auction off, asking for an opening bid of $10,000, which came right away from a telephone bidder. Then $11,000 followed right away as at least eight phone bidders tried to get in on the action with as many as three hands in the air for each bid. At $30,000 Fletcher jumped the increments to $5,000 advances, yet the action continued at a rapid pace. As the lot hit the $75,000 mark, only two phone bidders were left in the game and bidding became more deliberate, yet still progressed to hit the $100,000 mark. The bid increment once again increased, with Fletcher looking for $110,000, he got it and that proved to be the final advance, with the lot selling at $132,000, including premium.
Litchfield, Conn., dealer Peter Tillou, who frequently sold to Andy Williams and helped build the collection, provided a bit of provenance not listed in the catalog regarding the Ward Brothers widgeon decoys. “The ducks performed very well,” stated the dealer, “You know, I bought those for Andy at Bourne’s a long, long time ago and paid $20,000 for them. Everyone gasped at the price,” he said with a chuckle.
A pig weathervane was up next, with the gilt full-bodied example measuring almost 3 feet in length. Opening at $8,000, the lot hammered down to a phone bidder at $36,000. An Index horse weathervane was up next, and it proved to be one of two lots in the Williams portion of the auction that passed, failing to find interest at $7,500. An ewe vane was up next, going to the phones at $9,000, a larger merino ram followed at $10,200.
One of the star lots of the Williams collection was John Rasmussen’s painting “View of the Buildings and Surroundings of the Berks County Almshouse.” The painting listed an exhibitions provenance, having appeared in “Where Liberty Dwells: Nineteenth Century Art by the American People, Works of Art in the Collection of Mr and Mrs Peter Tillou” that traveled in 1976 and 1977 and, among other places, was seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Fletcher opened the lot at $75,000, it was hit by a phone bidder at $80,000, then another at $85,000, where it hammered down for $102,000.
A James Bard portrait of the sidewheeler Neversink was another lot to see substantial action, going to an Internet bidder well above estimate at $108,000.
“A gentleman came into preview and gave us this packet,” stated Fletcher as he opened a folder that had the history of the tobacconist figure commonly called a race track tout, although sometimes a Dapper Dan. The figure is truly iconic Americana, and this particular example was firmly attributed to Providence, R.I., carver Charles Dowler, circa 1880.
The documentation received by the gallery came complete with photographs of the piece when it was purchased during a private treaty sale between auctioneer Richard Bourne and Williams around 1980. The figure was pictured in the folder at the time of the sale between Bourne and Williams with a much later layer of paint, one of 13 removed during a process that lasted between four and five months. Fletcher referred to the finish as “original surface, not original paint” and called the figure “about as good as it gets.”
With several telephone bidders lined up and ready for action, Fletcher asked for an opening bid of $110,000 and got it right away from the telephones, and the bids came rapid fire as the lot exceeded the high estimate of $250,000, where it stalled momentarily. Spotters in the room called out a bid from the gallery, somewhat startling Fletcher as it was the first bid of the day from the audience, with the auctioneer recognizing a paddle raised from the side of the gallery at $275,000 by Tillou. The phone bidder hit the lot at $300,000 and Tillou once again advanced the bid, claiming the lot at $390,000.
“Andy was one of my closest friends,” stated Tillou after the auction, “I thought the auction went very well, prices were good and there were good, solid buys.” In regard to the tout, Tillou commented that the figure was “wonderful aesthetically, it has great form, very stylish and elegant, not heavy at all, just a beautiful sculpture. I had to have it.”
A couple of lots later, the top lot of the sale was offered, the exceptional and iconic folk art double portrait of the Ten Brock twins by Ammi Phillips. Auctioneer Stephen Fletcher’s humor was evident during preview as the rare painting was displayed above a vignette of the background depicted in the portrait, a pair of paint decorated fancy chairs flanked a candlestand topped with a bowl of fruit
Listing an extensive exhibition history, beginning in 1975 and extending into the 1990s, highlights included shows at the Whitney and the American Folk Art Museum. A pleasing portrait with well-executed faces, the background of the works was in dark brown with one boy reaching for a pear from the bowl of fruit, the other with his elbow resting on a pile of books and a peach in his other hand. With the typical “banana-shaped” fingers for which Phillips is so well known, the painting has long been regarded as a masterpiece.
Bidding on the lot opened at $150,000, against a $300/500,000 estimate, with the telephones once again dominating the action. At $275,000, Tillou’s hand was held high and he remained in the competition until the painting hit the $500,000 mark. From there, it was two phone bidders, with Woodbury, Conn., dealers David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles winning the lot at $880,000.
“Twins, I’ve got twins,” exclaimed Schorsch the day after the auction. “I have always loved the painting and remember it from the time Andy bought it at Sotheby’s in 1980.” It was purchased for stock, although Schorsch commented that he does have a client in mind; he said, “I have always regarded the portrait as one of the great ones.”
Another Ammi Phillips portrait of a child dressed in red with a dog was the next lot to cross the block with Tillou, hand held high in the air, not to be outdone this time. The Litchfield dealer, who was listed in the provenance as having originally acquired the painting from a Pennsylvania collection, claimed it at $144,000. According to the dealer, the painting “is one of six known with colored dresses, all done during a period in 1834-35. That was a sleeper, I love it.”
A pair of portraits by Phillips were sold next, with a young man and woman selling at $42,000.
Fletcher called the next lot “a possibly unique piece of American folk art as a monumental, almost surrealistic, Nineteenth Century American School painting of a basket of fruit, flowers and a cornucopia was offered. Cataloged as possibly the work of James Proctor, reportedly a black artist working in New York City, the piece was highlighted by a fanciful gold finch atop a stem holding a cluster of grapes and a colorful slice of watermelon removed from a whole melon central in the image.
Estimated at $150/200,000, the lot opened at $100,000 and Tillou’s hand was once again in the air, although by $200,000, competition bounced back and forth between several of the telephones, with it climbing to $480,000, selling to a most determined phone bidder.
Strong interest continued throughout the afternoon in the general owners session of Americana, with the top lot coming as a Nineteenth Century American School painting with single-family history was offered. The painting had an inscription in a lower central panel, “The Junction formed in Medford by the meeting of the River, Canal and Railroad.” A charming work depicting an early open locomotive pulling coach-style cars crossing the bridge over the canal and river shows several stately residences in the background and a family taking in the sight from the foreground. A hot air balloon flies overhead in the distance.
“Marguerite Riordan advertised one in Antiques magazine in the 1980s and there is another similar one in Sumpter Priddy’s American Fancy book,” stated Fletcher. The auctioneer continued that the painting may well have been done by students, “similar to schoolgirl needlework samplers.” The painting had attracted the attention of major Americana dealers, with Fred Giampietro seated in the rear of the gallery and Stephen Score seated front and center in front of the auctioneer. Also on hand were Jim Glazer, Bill Samaha, Jim Grievo, Jonathan Trace and Bill Stahl. The painting, estimated at $20/30,000, opened at $14,000 and took off like a Triple Crown winner, with six telephone bidders competing with the crowd. It was not long before the phones were the only players, with the lot finishing at $144,000.
Other paintings that did well included two China School paintings titled “The Waterfront Hongs at Canton, China,” circa 1832, that sold at $45,000, while another view realized $36,000. A Raphael Corsini portrait of the “Bark Martha Clark, Capt Austin Miller at Anchor in Constantinople April 2, 1852” sold well above the $5/7,000 estimate, bringing $20,400.
Several pieces of furniture did well, with a banister back side chair with Prince of Wales crest and crusty black over red paint doubling estimates on its way to a selling price of $19,200. An inlaid Federal bowfront chest thought to be northern New England brought $27,600. A stately Connecticut River Valley chest on chest with bonnet top was a good buy at $7,200.
A monumental Tiffany presentation sterling bowl marking the opening of the F.W. Woolworth building in 1913 led the silver offerings, with it selling between estimates at $42,000. A pair of Paul Revere silver spoons sold at $8,400.
A camp flag from the 53rd Regiment Pennsylvania was another lot that was hotly contested. Estimated at $8/12,000, the rare Civil War flag did well, selling at $36,000. Another patriotic item that proved to be a surprise was a Chinese Export creamer decorated with the Great Seal of the United States. Estimated at $800–$1,200, the lot took off, with several people chasing it all the way to a final selling price of $39,000.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
Upcoming auctions at Skinner include jewelry on March 12 and a two-day Discovery auction March 13–14. For information, 508-970-3000 or www.skinnerinc.com.